A homeless person is not a pest

I spent ten minutes staring at the t-shirt of the man sat opposite me on the F train last week. I have thought of it at least once, and sometimes several times, each day since then.

It was neatly pressed, flatteringly black, and silk-screened with the words, “Yes, I have plenty of change you homeless piece of shit. Thanks for asking.”

And, as I later learned, for those not willing to put their money where their hate is, there’s the free option of a Facebook group with the same name. Not quite as extreme, but still revealing was a recent survey that put “panhandlers” as the number five most annoying thing in New York.

The fact is homeless people are still thought and talked about as if they were pests.

I suppose the reason the t-shirt so transfixed me was that I had, wrongly, assumed the blame-the-victim mentality was dead, but blaming the victim is exactly what the pest discourse feeds into. And more than that, it dehumanizes.

With hate crimes against the homeless on the rise, exterminating the pest discourse is even more important. To get you started, here’s a quick, five-point resource for humanizing and shifting the blame from the homeless:

1. Housing is a human right; it’s in article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

2. Becoming homeless is a widespread fear. 23 percent of New Yorkers are worried about it; for those with low incomes and children the figure is 58 percent.

3. The recession, with its foreclosures and layoffs, caused a massive increase in homelessness. Between 2007 and 08, the number of families entering NYC homeless shelters swelled by 40 percent.

4. Affordable housing is beyond the income of many Americans. More than 10 percent of homeless adults are employed and in every state the minimum wage is not enough to make a one- or two-bedroom apartment affordable.

5. Homelessness occurs in a context of stark inequality. The top 1 percent enjoys 43 percent of the nation’s financial wealth, the bottom 80 percent have 7.

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2 Responses to A homeless person is not a pest

  1. Jermaine Taylor says:

    Great post! So glad someone called out some of the ignorance on the part of the haves concerning the have-nots which so effortlessly seems to pass for wit in our society generally and NYC particularly. (When did making fun of those less fortunate become cool?) Anyway, I agree with you 100%. If we continue to see the homeless as “pests,” we’ll never open our eyes to the very real inequities in our culture that give rise to homelessness to begin with. Thanks for speaking out!

  2. Amy Stretten says:

    Hi Andrea,

    I really like how you wrote a very thoughtful, helpful piece regarding homelessness, instead of complaining about the existence of the less fortunate (and sided with the man on the train with the hateful shirt). It’s so easy to consider a homeless person a nuisance when they ask you for money and you think to yourself, “I wish I had enough for myself, let alone extra to help you, too!” But, if we consider, even for a moment, what it means to live on the street and have very few options aside from begging strangers for spare pocket change, we might not feel as “annoyed.”

    Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful piece!

    -Amy

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